Royal Portrush Golf Club – Dunluce Links, Portrush, Northern Ireland: Designer: Harry Colt, with Martin Ebert renovation 2017; Course Type: Coastal Links; Par: 71; Length: 7,337 yards; Fairways: Fescue, Bentgrass and Meadow Grass; Rough: Fescue, Bentgrass and Meadow Grass; Greens: Bentgrass (50%), Fescue (30%), Annual Meadow grass (20%).
The Dunluce Links at Royal Portrush has been described as a course that rewards pure golf and rejects bad shots with harsh consequences. A Harry Colt masterpiece, the Dunluce will play as a challenging Par 71 at 7,337 yards this week. Since the 2012 Irish Open hosted here and won by Jamie Donaldson, the course has been re-configured and now features 2 new holes (the par-5 7th and par-4 8th), designed by Martin Ebert. The addition of these two new holes means that the old 17th and 18th holes, which were considered as weak closers, have been decommissioned.
Set within amazing dunes which frame holes perfectly, the course has undulations across its routing but also tellingly on the green complexes. It’s a course which is well known as being right in front of you, but to play well around here you need a game which is totally on point. Oh yes and a teenager by the name of Rory McIlroy held the course record on the old course with a 61, shot in 2006. I’m sure you’ll read and hear about that a few times this week.
Padraig Harrington knows a thing or two about the Open Championship. The 2007 and 2008 Open Champion, Harrington is synonymous with playing links golf to the very highest standard. Asked back in 2012 about the green complexes on the Dunluce course, he answered, “The greens are reasonably receptive, which is a godsend for us, because we are just not used to the ball moving around inside the green complexes and trying to cut the ball into a right‑to‑left green, and you have to trust that, yes, the wind will move it and things like that. When you are playing in warm weather, the ball doesn’t do anything like it does here. I think having had the rain over the last couple of weeks, it’s going to help us out a little bit that the greens are not too firm. It would certainly‑ it’s not that the golf course wouldn’t play well if the greens were firm or the course was firm.”
The greens are undoubtedly the star here on the Dunluce Links as they are undulating and devilish when firm. Royal Portrush though is also known for its weather. You can experience all 4 seasons in a single day on this stretch of the North Atlantic coastline and this part of the world is well-known for strong winds.
With only 64 bunkers on the course, Royal Portrush has the lowest number of sand traps on the Open rota, however its difficulty is generated by the wind, the creativity of Harry Colt’s masterful greens, and the course’s new found length.
Martin Ebert’s renovation has added almost 200 yards to the challenge and at over 7,300 yards, playing as a Par 71 with only 3 par-5s, when the wind blows this track will be a real challenge. The most famous hole has to be the 230 yard, par-3 16th named ‘Calamity Corner’ which is one of the most notorious links course holes on the planet.
Below are some revealing comments about the course when it last played at the 2012 Irish Open:
Padraig Harrington: “Yeah, I think the golf course is set up perfectly. It’s different, the way we play as professional golfers, the style of golf is different to what I would have played when I played here 17 years ago. The greens are reasonably receptive, which is a godsend for us, because we are just not used to the ball moving around inside the green complexes and trying to cut the ball into a right‑to‑left green, and you have to trust that, yes, the wind will move it and things like that. When you are playing in warm weather, the ball doesn’t do anything like it does here. I think having had the rain over the last couple of weeks, it’s going to help us out a little bit that the greens are not too firm. It would certainly‑ it’s not that the golf course wouldn’t play well if the greens were firm or the course was firm but it’s further away from what we play in professional golf, so we would be less accustomed to it.
At least now the way the course is set up, like I said, if you miss a shot, especially off the tee, actually around some of the greens, there’s some bushes, things like, that even out‑of‑bounds close to greens and stuff like that, so there are shots you’re going to find trouble, but you definitely can hit good shots out there and I think it would be a question of trying to make as many birdies as you can and accepting a couple of mistakes here and there.”
Graeme McDowell: “I think 63 off the back tees, not the new tees. Not quite as good as Rory’s 61 in a qualifier for the North of Ireland. But this is a golf course where you can go low. You have a benign day like today, off the old tees, especially, it’s pretty short by modern standards. The course is playing fairly long this week and there’s not a lot of fire in the fairways given the amount of rain we’ve had. The new tee boxes are fairly stout, 7,100, 7,200 yards, there’s some spicy enough rough out there in places if you get off the beaten track. It’s a good test.”
Darren Clarke: “17, off that new back tee, depends where the wind is coming from, obviously, as every hole goes on a links. What is it, 600‑odd yards now? If the wind blows into off the left, it’s a nightmare, because there’s a bunker a bit nearly there on the right‑hand side; and if the wind picks up it’s going to be a really, really tough hole.”
Michael Hoey: “They have put a few tees just far enough back, and it’s soft conditions at the minute, and it’s playing long. So I think just this course is now set up just perfectly and visually it’s great.
Just the run‑offs around the greens, you just have to be pinpoint accurate and then the wind and the guys are talking about how good the grass is for divots, it’s just pure, great links, a bit like St. Andrews. It’s really good. I think some of the par-3s are really difficult, the 6th, and the 14th, obviously Calamity. Just finished there and the wind is in off the left and it’s a really solid 2‑iron or maybe 3‑wood. It’s good, because if it wasn’t windy, some guys would hit like 5‑iron in there. So it’s a proper test at the minute which is really good.
So I think par 3s, and then like 17 is tough. That bunker is really in play off the tee. The wind is in off the left, and I hit a good drive and the wind just leaked it and it plugged in bunker. You could make a 10 if you’re in there. You see quite a few players bailing out left.
So that’s quite a tough hole, and then the finishing hole 18 is tough, and the first, a lot of tough holes.”
Shane Lowry (Round 3): ”Yeah, it was quite similar obviously, but it was really tough out there. When you turn around, 14, 15, 16, 17; 17 we couldn’t get home in two, and 16 was playing driver, 2‑iron. Everything was just so tough. I just didn’t scramble the ball well and didn’t get up‑and‑down when I should have. You know, shooting 4‑over, that’s golf.”
Padraig Harrington (Round 3): “Well, we got a big shot the first couple of holes. The first hole, I hit a nice approach shot and came up 45 yards short of the flag. That’s a long way out to carry on the wind. Second hole, same thing, hit a very nice approach shot in there and to come up 25 yards short, you’re kind of wondering what’s happening. So we didn’t get settled into the round very well early on. I suppose we got going a bit more in the middle, on 7, I hit a tee shot that was virtually unplayable. But there wasn’t much going for me early on, so 72 under the circumstances, I’ve got to be pleased.”
Tournament Stats. We’ve published some key player statistics for this week’s Open Championship that will help to shape a view on players who traditionally play well at this event: Form/Event Stats | Current Form | Tournament Form | First Round Leader Stats | Top 20 Finishes | Recent Majors Stats.
Predictor Model. Our published Predictor Model is available here. As always you can build your own model using the variables available.
Winners & Prices. 2018: Francesco Molinari, 33/1; 2017: Jordan Spieth, 16/1; 2016: Henrik Stenson, 33/1; 2015: Zach Johnson, 110/1; 2014: Rory McIlroy, 18/1; 2013, Phil Mickelson, 20/1; 2012: Ernie Els, 45/1; 2011: Darren Clarke, 200/1; 2010: Louis Oosthuizen, 250/1. For a summary of winners’ odds since 2010 click here; for the same on the PGA Tour click here.
Weather Forecast. The latest weather forecast for the area is here. Sunshine and showers are the order of the day for Portrush this week with temperatures reaching the mid-60s Fahrenheit in the afternoons. Wind speeds averaging around 10-15mph coming predominantly from the south-west, whilst not insignificant, aren’t likely to offer the course a massive amount of protection.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors.
Let’s take the final skill statistics from Jamie Donaldson who won the 2012 Irish Open held here, plus Rafa Cabrera-Bello, Anthony Wall and Fabrizio Zanotti who finished joint runner-up to the Welshman. Yes, we know that the Dunluce Links has been changed since this tournament, but it does give us a little more insight into the requirements for this test:
- 1st, Jamie Donaldson (-18). 289 yards (8th), 58.9% fairways (35th), 62.5% greens in regulation (64th), 63.0 % scrambling (5th), 1.51 putts per GIR (1st).
- 2nd, Rafa Cabrera-Bello (-14). 273 yards (51st), 62.5% fairways (25th), 81.9% greens in regulation (5th), 46.2% scrambling (27th), 1.76 putts per GIR (23rd).
- 2nd, Anthony Wall (-14). 277 yards (39th), 67.9% fairways (9th), 69.4% greens in regulation (43rd), 68.2% scrambling (2nd), 1.62 putts per GIR (4th).
- 2nd, Fabrizio Zanotti (-14). 281 yards (22nd), 66.1% fairways (15th), 79.2% greens in regulation (13th), 40.0 % scrambling (49th), 1.77 putts per GIR (33rd).
- Driving Distance: 30th, Driving Accuracy: 21st, Greens in Regulation: 31st, Scrambling: 21st, Putting Average 15th.
Naturally these statistics have to be taken with some context, but a couple of numbers jump off the page. It’s rare in professional golf that you see Driving Accuracy outranking Driving Distance, but it did at the 2012 Irish Open. Some of this can be put down to the wind where a north-westerly headwind made the home stretch a real handful, especially on Saturday. But you have to take from this that to have real success around Dunluce, you cannot be totally flagrant from off the tee. Some of the players used to PGA Tour course conditions won’t be fans of that.
In addition, we can also see that Greens in Regulation was of secondary consideration to both Scrambling and Putting Average. That is often the case on a links course when the weather is difficult. Course management and patience tends to take over from pure ball-striking ability, In 2012 we were dealing with a soft golf course in the main, but given tough windy conditions, it’s also revealing that 80% of Greens in Regulation was more than achievable for over 20 players in the field. So if conditions are not as soft as the R&A want and winds are tranquil, Dunluce would appear to be a reasonable test from tee-to-green. Ultimately though, Jamie Donaldson’s length from the tee, allied to a red hot scrambling and putting display won the title for the Welshman, however he was -13 across the 16 looks at the par-5s on the week.
It’s well worth noting that the course played as a Par 72 back in 2012. Since then it’s been considerably lengthened, with the par-5 2nd hole Giant’s Grave playing at 577 yards as opposed to 528 yards 7 years ago. The back nine for The Open will also feature only a single par-5, the 12th Dhu Varren hole, which plays as 530 yards. So as a Par 71 Dunluce will play to 7,337 yards as opposed to the 2012 Irish Open, where it was a 7,143 yard Par 72.
There are a number of identifiable trends from the past few Open Championship winners that are worth considering this week:
Recent Wins: In terms of recent winning form, 13 Open Champions from the last 19 renewals (68%) had won a tournament in the same season prior to triumphing at The Open. Tiger Woods (00, 05, 06), Ernie Els (02), Todd Hamilton (04), Padraig Harrington (07), Louis Oosthuizen (10), Darren Clarke (11), Phil Mickelson (13), Rory McIlroy (14), Henrik Stenson (16), Jordan Spieth (17) and Francesco Molinari (18) had all won in the same season prior to lifting the Claret Jug.
In terms of ‘non-winners’, David Duval had 3 Top-10 finishes and had finished 2nd at Augusta at the Masters prior to his triumph Royal Lytham in 2001. 2008 saw Padraig Harrington accumulate 4 Top-10s prior to winning by 3 shots at Royal Birkdale and the following year saw Stewart Cink arrive at Turnberry with 2 Top-10s including a 3rd at the World Match Play.
Zach Johnson may have arrived as a 110/1 shot in 2015, however with 7 top-10 finishes in the season to date and incoming form of 6/3 over his previous two events, he was clearly in decent nick. Only Ben Curtis at Royal St Georges in 2003 came from way off the page: in his rookie season on the PGA Tour he’d managed a 13th at the Western Open 2 weeks prior to The Open before beating Bjorn, Singh, Love III and Woods to take the coveted Claret Jug back home to Ohio.
Francesco Molinari’s success at Carnoustie last year was his 3rd title in the space of 6 starts globally and adds even more gravitas to the fact that in-form players are the ones to follow at the Open Championship. It makes sense that those who are struggling with their games are unlikely to find them on a tough links course and in the last 6 champions we can see a pattern that’s easy to extrapolate:
- 2018: Francesco Molinari, like Zach Johnson in 2015, arrived in Scotland directly off the John Deere Classic charter flight from Illinois and his confidence must have been sky high. A huge win (his 5th on the European Tour) in May at the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth was followed by 2nd at his home Italian Open when defending. But the Italian’s summer got even better when he flew out to Washington in July to player Tiger’s tournament at TPC Potomac, which he won and in doing so captured his first tournament in the United States. He arrived in Scotland having just shot a field best -7/64 in the final round to finish T2 in the John Deere Classic.
- 2017: Jordan Spieth flew into the northwest of England fully fresh and rested his 10th PGA Tour victory which he’d racked-up at TPC River Highlands when clinching the Travelers Championship in a spectacular play-off victory over Daniel Berger 4 weeks prior. In Strokes Gained parlance he was 7th for Approach, 2nd for Around The Green and 1st for Tee to Green, whilst he wasn’t bad with the putter finishing 3rd for Putts per GIR.
- 2016: Henrik arrived in Ayrshire fresh from a free-wheeling 13th at the Scottish Open played at Caste Stuart. 76 in Round 1 was then followed by rounds of 69-66-70. However a fortnight prior to the Scottish Open, Stenson had won the BMW International Open at Gut Larchenhof with a -17/271 total. His performance in Germany and his 3-shot winning margin was made even more impressive by the fact that he topped Driving Accuracy, Total Driving, Greens in Regulation and All-Round categories. He was also 2nd for Scrambling. Henrik had also finished 4th at Bro Hoff Slot in June as well as 3rd at Bay Hill and 2nd in Houston earlier in the season on the PGA Tour.
- 2015: Zach arrived at Edinburgh airport on the charter flight direct from Silvis, Illinois where he’d just finished a single shot behind Jordan Spieth at the John Deere Classic. 5th at Las Colinas and 6th at TPC River Highlands in preceding PGA Tour outings highlighted a player at the top of his game – even now the fact that he was available at 110/1 to win at St Andrews is jaw-dropping!
- 2014: Rory had won the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth in May, a track which had always been his nemesis until his closing 66 destroyed the field. He then limbered up with a free-rolling 14th at Royal Aberdeen the week before triumphing in Cheshire, where a horrible 78 on Friday was surrounded by rounds of 64, 67 and 68. Rory was 18/1 second favourite prior to the tournament.
- 2013: Phil Mickelson had already won at TPC Scottsdale and finished 2nd on the tough tests of Merion (US Open) and TPC Southwind before he touched down in Scotland. Arriving at Castle Stuart the week before The Open, Phil was a 20/1 shot to win the Scottish Open, which he duly did before travelling down the east coast to Muirfield where he shot an incredible 66 on Sunday to win by 3 shots from Henrik Stenson again at 20/1.
- 2012: Ernie Els was available at 45/1 prior to Royal Lytham in 2012. With 4 Top-5 finishes (Fancourt, Copperhead, Bay Hill and New Orleans) plus a 7th at Wentworth and 9th at the US Open just prior to the Open, he had huge momentum and was in the right place at the right time when Adam Scott collapsed over the closing 4 holes. It’s fact that Ernie was the latest in a long line of form players to triumph at the Open Championship.
Last 10 event form of Open Championship winners since 2010 reads as follows:
- 2018, Francesco Molinari: 17/20/49/16/MC/1/2/25/1/2 (Most recent result last)
- 2017, Jordan Spieth: 12/30/MC/11/MC/MC/2/13/35/1
- 2016, Henrik Stenson: 11/3/2/24/MC/MC/4/WD/1/13
- 2015, Zach Zohnson: 20/9/MC/17/13/19/5/72/6/3
- 2014: Rory McIlroy: 25/7/8/8/6/1/15/23/MC/14
- 2013: Phil Mickelson: 3/MC/16/54/3/MC/2/2/MC/1
- 2012: Ernie Els: 4/12/MC/2/MC/41/7/58/9/52
- 2011: Darren Clarke: 12/48/MC/77/1/45/63/46/MC/66
- 2010: Louis Oosthuizen: 3/44/2/1/MC/MC/21/20/MC/MC
Open Championship Record: Positive previous Open Championship performances have also been a factor when you look through the history of the most recent winners of golf’s oldest Major. 12 of the last 13 Open Champions had all previously secured at least a top-10 in this event in their careers – the exception to that rule being Louis Oosthuizen’s win at St Andrews in 2010:
- 2018, Franceso Molinari: MC/13/MC/MC/39/9/15/40/36/MC (Most recent result last)
- 2017, Jordan Spieth: 44/36/4/30
- 2016, Henrik Stenson: MC/34/48/MC/3/13/3/68/2/39/40
- 2015, Zach Zohnson: MC/MC/MC/20/51/47/76/16/9/6/47
- 2014: Rory McIlroy: 42/47/3/25/60/MC
- 2013: Phil Mickelson: 41/24/76/MC/11/30/66/59/3/60/22/MC/19/48/2/MC
- 2012: Ernie Els: 2/10/28/24/2/3/1/18/2/34/3/4/7/8/MC/MC
- 2011: Darren Clarke: 11/2/MC/30/7/3/37/59/11/15/MC/MC/52/44
- 2010: Louis Oosthuizen: MC/MC/MC
It’s also interesting to note that only two players since 2000 have won The Open whilst ranking outside of the world’s top-55 when entering this week – Ben Curtis in 2003 and Darren Clarke in 2011 were the two to achieve this. In general, an in-form player with some relevant results from previous Open Championships and/or links/coastal events has triumphed in this event and I’d be surprised if the player who lifts the Claret Jug on Sunday deviates from this a great deal.
With only the 2012 Irish Open to go on in terms of course form and with the course lengthened and new holes added since, we’re going to need to approach this week’s task with an element of trust in the course specification and its raw links characteristics.
A relatively calm forecast forecast is likely to take the sting out of Portrush and birdies will be more readily available than some Open Championships; coupled with forecast showers on all 4 days, I suspect the winning total will be a little lower than the purists would like.
For me this puts the emphasis more on a strong, powerful tee-to-green game than touch around the greens. With its raised greens and false fronts, Portrush is less about playing golf along the floor than some other links venues and in many cases the ball needs to be flown all the way to the hole. All of that said, to lift the Claret Jug a player will also need to demonstrate masses of guile and determination coming down the stretch on Sunday under the most intense of pressure.
My selections are as follows: